I'm Kind Of A Terrible, High-Strung, Anxious Traveler, But I Want To Be The Cool Person Who Goes To Cool Places And Has Cool Adventures

I like to think of myself as an adventurous person, who cheerily goes new places and explores unfamiliar experiences with zeal. But this is totally a lie.
Publish date:
March 25, 2014
traveling, anxiety

Is there such a thing as hotel amnesia? I can never remember what it is that makes me hate a hotel until I find myself in a hotel room that I hate. In this most recent case, flat grey walls -- probably intended to convey tidy minimalism -- plus a shining steel panel serving as an ominous headboard that extends to the ceiling; a bed that some might find supportive, but that I would describe as uncompromising; the room of a size overall just small enough to be frustrating for two people to occupy, but not so small as to be cozy or charming; a window that looks onto a piss-reeking central ventilation shaft -- not entirely shocking, for a renovated urban boutique hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, but still, a feature I try to avoid in hotel accommodations whenever possible.

Worst of all, the entire room has a perceptible tilt from one side to the other, in a way that reminds me of the menacing lines and angles of Shirley Jackson’s Hill House. It is a room that feels off balance in more ways than one, its one small piece of framed art literally hiding in an unlit corner, and all three pertinent hotel-room doors -- entrance, closet, and bathroom -- clustered at regular intervals on one blank wall dotted with chips in the flat grey paint, forming a featureless expanse of doors that is depressingly functional to look at. But look at it one must, as this is the wall the bed faces, and save for a small desk that would be considered too dull for dorm furniture on one side, and a similarly basic set of drawers on the other, there is nothing else to see. I can almost sympathize with that reticent framed art, given the circumstances.

To be clear, a good hotel room need not be spacious to make me happy -- but it shouldn’t feel unconsidered. I have to sleep in it. Sleeping is arguably one of humanity’s most vulnerable states, and while I’m willing to make exceptions for airports and other inconvenient necessities, if I am literally paying for a room to sleep in, I expect the room to fill that need with aplomb. No, setting the air conditioning unit two feet from the side of the bed is not a design feature. No, a freezing cold steel headboard against which one’s arm might rest in the night, waking the sleeper with a start, is not an interesting aesthetic choice.

And if the decor was just annoying, there was also the fact that on Wednesday morning at precisely 7:45am, the whole room started vibrating. I’m not joking -- I woke up to an intermittent but incredibly persuasive buzzing that shook the bed and walls and made me wonder, briefly, whether I was experiencing some kind of very mild earthquake. I spent half an hour wandering around the small room, trying not to wake my husband but also trying to place the sound, feeling the walls, checking the hall outside. I eventually narrowed the source to the room upstairs, when the buzzing gave way to a muffled but still very loud voice bellowing incomprehensible rage for a few minutes, at which point I started to wonder if I was actually losing my mind (I also started thinking about Elisa Lam -- creepy corner alert -- and freaking myself out further).

Finally, it all stopped. In retrospect, it was probably someone’s phone vibrating an alarm, although how a phone could vibrate so emphatically as to rattle a building is beyond me.

To be fair, this wasn’t the hotel’s fault. And there’s nothing REALLY wrong with this hotel. It’s not dirty, there are no bedbugs, the toilet flushes and the shower has hot water, and everything seems to work as it should. It is functional space, and is not badly reviewed. I always check reviews before booking and I wouldn’t stay anywhere that the reviews gave me reason to pause. Still, sometimes I just don’t like a hotel. And sometimes, when I decide I dislike something, it takes me a bit to sort of lean into the disliking -- as though I think I need permission to not like it, and once that permission is procured, I’m going to dislike ALL OVER IT.

I spent five nights in that hotel room while attending the Game Developers Conference, getting less sleep each night that went by, growing increasingly annoyed that we were paying for a room regarding which my feelings had shifted from mild “meh” to active loathing. Making it all worse was that I have this weird issue about hotel beds and pillows, in which I find myself obsessing over the number of people who’ve slept on, drooled on, farted in, expelled any number of bodily fluids upon them. It's absurd, I know. If I dig the hotel and am sleeping well enough, I can usually ignore these bizarre concerns. If I hate it, they’re all I can think about. I start working out math in my head, trying to imagine how many people had defiled that mattress or pillow before I got to it. So much drool. So many farts. So much less restful sleep for me.

Traveling is always a thing I say I want to do more of. I like to think of myself as an adventurous person -- the kind of person who goes new places and explores unfamiliar things without worrying too much, always open to crazy experiences and challenges. I read other people’s exciting first-person tales of journeys to the far corners of the world, where they seemingly fall into new adventures without any friction, and think, I could do that, too! It would be awesome!

But this is totally a lie. I despise planes, I am extremely prone to motion sickness no matter the vehicle, and on any trip I spend at least part of every day longing for my own familiar home. I am a terrible traveler, which is ironic considering I do it so often, and not even to difficult or taxing places, but to parts of the US with little chance of cultural clash, where I speak the language with ease, and where I usually know exactly what to expect.

However, even in these simplest of circumstances, I get massive travel anxiety. What if the plane crashes? (It won’t, you’ve looked up the odds of this happening a zillion times, it’s more likely that you’ll die in the cab on the way to the airport, and you don’t worry about THAT.) What if I forget something? (You’ll buy it when you get there.) What if the hotel is gross? (You’ll survive, you’ve stayed in gross places before and been fine.) What if our cat gets sick while we’re gone (This is why you have a petsitter.), or the washing machine hoses burst and flood everything (You just replaced them so this is very unlikely.), or I left the toaster plugged in and it might spontaneously burst into flames and burn our building down (Now you’re just being ridiculous!).

The thread running through all these questions, and the travel anxiety itself, is a perceived loss of control. Traveling pings all my compulsive urges to plan everything thoroughly and account for every possible contingency, and my fears of not being able to keep a handle on everything that happens while I’m gone. The funny thing is my sense of universal control over all things when I’m at home isn’t even real, it’s just that I can fool myself into thinking I can bend an unpredictable universe to my whim. When faced with an unfamiliar city or an unknown accommodation, I can’t pretend this is true -- I just have to deal with the fact that I don’t know what will happen, and that is a part of life.

Besides, as I often remind myself, even IF a terrible thing happened, either to me while traveling, or at home in my absence, the mere act of me worrying about what disasters might occur does not actually prevent anything bad from taking place, nor does it mitigate any potential damage. My stress and anxiety are not a protective force I wield against Bad Things, because they can’t prevent Bad Things. All they do is make me miserable.

So, these are some of the ways in which I try to deal.

1. Make lists. I make lists of everything. Lists for packing, but even more importantly, lists of mundane things to check before I leave the house to head to the airport, stuff like “unplug toaster” and “close all windows.” The simple act of looking over a list and being sure I’ve done all the things I’m likely to think back on and use as a source of anxiety later is hugely soothing.

2. Pack thoughtfully. Few things frustrate me more than getting somewhere and realizing I’ve packed all the wrong clothes for the weather or the activities I want to do. So I always check the weather, and I pack at least a day ahead, choosing outfits with options -- a sweater that goes with multiple dresses in case it’s unexpectedly chilly, a pair of backup tights, clothes that are interchangeable depending on my mood or activity. Doing it in advance means I can make adjustments before I go (like this trip, in which I almost forgot to pack any socks at all), and I’m not throwing stuff in a suitcase haphazardly hoping for the best at the last minute. That’s how things (like socks) get forgotten.

3. Get there early. Wherever it is. Go to the airport early. Head out to the museum/lunch venue/conference center early. I think of this as building in extra time for getting lost and/or panicking. Lateness makes me bananas, and being early, knowing I have more than enough time to find the place I’m going, helps me relax. Simple.

4. Upgrade. Yeah, yeah, I realize this isn't budget-friendly, but if I know I’m not checking a bag and will need to make sure I get overhead space for my stuff, I will pony up for early boarding privileges. (JetBlue’s version of this comes attached to a comfier extra-space row and, at some airports, a shorter line at security, and, dudes, even when I am on a budget this upgrade is worth EVERY PENNY.) If I don’t do this, I expend a bunch of worry on whether I’ll have to gate-check my bag, which is always just skirting the edge of “too big” for the overhead compartment anyway.

5. Look at all the pictures. I not only look at all the non-professional traveler pictures on Trip Advisor for whatever hotel I’m staying at -- and they have pictures for pretty much any hotel you can possibly imagine -- or local sightseeing spots I hope to visit, I also use Google StreetView to check out the surrounding neighborhood. It cuts down on potential surprises and just generally makes me feel more comfortable with my destination.

This is not to say these things always help. A couple of years ago, my husband and I went on a ten-day trip to Jamaica. It wasn’t a tourist thing. We were there to work. For many many years, my father has helped to organize a medical “mission” (so named because it’s sponsored via church affiliation) in Port Maria, a small town (by my standards, anyway) on the northern coast of the island. A team of doctors, nurses, and regular people like me work together to create a pop-up clinic for five days at the local Anglican church, providing medical services from general practice to gynecology to dentistry to eye exams, and people come from miles around, some from very poor rural areas, for what might be the only high-quality medical treatment they have easy access to all year.

I knew I could never really “prepare” for it as I usually do, so I was a wreck in the weeks leading up to the trip. Terrified. I found a million things to be scared of, from the fact that I would be going into a culture I felt I knew remarkably little of beyond one book I read in grad school and one Lonely Planet travel guide, to the worry that I don’t understand Patois well enough to effectively communicate, to my fears of scary bus drivers, getting mugged, or otherwise finding myself in some form of danger.

Strangely, though, once I was there, all my concerns evaporated. Indeed, most of my worries weren’t even an issue. It was as though being put into a situation in which I had no idea what I was doing or what was happening forced a reboot of my anxiety-addled brain, and I just let go. Whatever, yo. What happens, happens. It’s all an experience. My only moments of real terror occurred one night when I saw a moth the size of a bird zipping around the dining room during dinner, and I thought, “If that thing lands on me I will die, like, immediately,” over and over again. But even that was short-lived, and after a day or two I got over my overwrought and totally irrational fears and everything was fine and nothing burned down.

I may never be the kind of person who can zip off at a moment’s notice for a spontaneous getaway. I might not be wired that way. But I’m trying to be a better traveler -- more relaxed, more adventurous, more open to new and challenging experiences, and even open to staying in hotels I hate. I want to do more of the kind of traveling that is not exclusively about going places I already know, but is about shaking myself out of my complacency and my comfort zone.

I’ll get there. Eventually.